Dealing with the Constant Complainer

Posted on September 7, 2016.

If you manage people long enough, it’s likely you’ll come across someone who constantly complains.  This is a person I know well. In addition to having a few of them work for me over years, I use to be one.

The funny thing about the constant complainer is that very often, he or she is one of your best employees. In fact, part of the reason they complain so much is that they have high standards for themselves, their peers and the company.  So what can you do if you have this type of employee?

It would be nice to pull a Donald Trump and say, “you’re fired!” But that’s not likely to be an option. What too many managers do is just listen, think about other things while their employee complains and count the minutes until they’re done. You’ve convinced yourself that you’ve done the right thing because they really just want to vent. But what you’re actually doing is enabling bad behavior.

The first thing you need to do is try to get to the source of the frustration.  If the complaints are work specific, try to hone in on the detail.  Appoint the person to head up a task force to find a solution to the issue.  The complainer is often taken aback when asked to actually fix a problem they’ve endlessly criticized. If nothing else, it will keep them preoccupied for a while until he or she has come up with a potential solution.  You may not end up adopting the recommendation, but you’re on the path to changing the person’s behavior from constant complaining to realizing that if he or she complains, they’ll be expected to seek out a solution.

Even if you don’t go to the trouble of formally creating a task force, every complaint you hear should be met with, “ what would you recommend instead?”  You would be surprised at how quickly the complaining will wane.

On the other hand, if the complaining emanates from some personal problems, it becomes a bit more complicated. Everyone faces personal challenges at various times in their life.  When they bring them into the workplace, it’s usually because they have no way to vent at home.  It’s a bit more difficult to get to the root of the issue, but if using the technique of always requiring solutions doesn’t work, then the complaining often has nothing to do with work at all. 

As a manager, you don’t usually want to get into someone’s personal problems. So it’s a fine line to walk when you want to help the person without be too invasive. It’s best to just suggest that if they are so unhappy with the current situation, they should speak with someone in Human Resources. If your company has an Employee Assistance Program, you could suggest they call this group as well.

The bottom line is that allowing a constant complainer to constantly complain is unhealthy. It’s unhealthy for you as it drains you emotionally; it’s unhealthy for your team as it can create a toxic environment.  And ultimately, it’s unhealthy for the complainer, as he or she is never forced to face the underlying issue that causes them to be so disgruntled.

I was very fortunate in my early career that I had a manager that refused to listen to my complaints unless I had a solution.  I quickly realized that there are some things in the workplace you just have to accept or you need to move on.